D.C. Effort to License Drug Sellers Advances

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) pushed for the bill.
Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) pushed for the bill. (James M. Thresher - The Washington Post )
By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The D.C. Council voted 7 to 6 yesterday to give initial approval to legislation that would make the District the first jurisdiction in the country to license pharmaceutical sales representatives, a major blow to the prescription drug industry and one that could have national implications if states follow the District's lead.

The legislation breaks new ground in the effort to reel in the multibillion-dollar prescription drug trade. In recent weeks, lobbyists for the industry doggedly pressed the council to reject the SafeRx Act of 2007 because federal laws and policies of the American Medical Association already monitor the salespeople.

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who has become known in national health circles as an industry watchdog, argued that those laws and policies still allow salespeople to misinform doctors and patients about the drugs they peddle as they pursue commissions. The marketing of more expensive, brand-name drugs drives up the costs for patients who receive little information about generics and more reasonably priced drugs that are equally effective, critics say.

"For too long, we have allowed profit and paternalism to be our guide for patient safety," Catania said in an interview after the narrow vote. "The truth is, no one is minding the store."

Yesterday's vote, however, will not end the debate. The council must vote again Jan. 8 on final approval of the legislation.

In recent days, it appeared that the bill would be defeated. It got a last-minute boost Monday from Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who wrote a supportive letter to council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D).

He also praised the work of Catania, who heads the council Health Committee. He noted the committee's "steadfast commitment" to combating substance abuse and HIV-AIDS and increasing access to quality health care -- a swipe at the contention of opposing council members and pharmaceutical lobbyists that Catania has neglected the city's health crises to join the national debate on prescription drugs.

Gray also influenced the vote, sitting quietly during contentious debate, then emerging as the tiebreaker.

Afterward, Ken Johnson, senior vice president of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, issued a statement through spokesman Jeff Trewhitt.

"We regret that the council voted in favor of legislation that creates unnecessary financial burdens for the District of Columbia at a time when the money would be better spent addressing a wide array of health care challenges confronting the city including HIV/AIDS, diabetes and heart disease," the statement said. "The bill passed by the council puts the city into a regulatory arena that has been effectively addressed by federal laws and federal government agencies for years."

Some council members agreed.

Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) called the debate "misdirected energy."

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